Jean Nouvel's gallery for the Fondation Cartier is an exercise in transparency and the perennial quest to remove the barrier between inside and outside. A building 'box' with glass walls would not do the trick: you could see through the walls, but you would be clearly either inside or outside the box.
In the Fondation Cartier Nouvel has extended the glass walls beyond the box, creating extra tall glass planes in the wild-flower garden, and extending the glass facade several meters above the roof terrace. At the edge of the plot he has created a whole extra glass plane as the street facade, wholly separate from the main box of the building.
The excuse for this extra glass wall is a 200-year old, celebrated Lebanese cedar, planted by Chateaubriand (1768-1848), which is 'framed by two glass screens that form a gate'. Barbara-Ann Campbell enthuses about this idea:
'The sheet-glass facades of the building extend beyond its structure, blurring its boundaries and denying the reading of a solid volume... The trees acquire a similarly ambiguous presence as it is unclear whether they are inside or outside. The trees are read behind a transparent fence instead of an opaque wall, and are embodied in the building by means of the 8-meter-high sliding windows to the exhibition space which can be entirely removed in summer, undressing the structure to reveal the columns. This allows the exhibition to slide into the park and vice versa. The building is a refracting series of superimpositions of sky, trees and reflected trees. Nouvel and his team have tried to bottle the mystery that belongs to a secret, walled garden between these glass layers.'
Which would be fine, if the Fondation Cartier were a tree museum. For a contemporary art museum, however, it is hard to conceive of a less suitable design. At the time of my visit, the main exhibition on the ground floor was composed entirely of videos and other illuminated art works, requiring temporary walls inside the glass to block out the transparency, or the exhibits would have been invisible. The resulting front facade (below) could perhaps be described as undressed, but only to reveal some rather unsightly underwear.
The redeeming feature of this building is the elegant detailing of the rear facade: stylish office space with behind the glass wall overlooking the garden, reached by a set of elevators that climb the side of the building gracefully and silently, without wires or cages.
The foundation was created in 1984 by the Cartier SA firm as a center for contemporary art that presents exhibits by established artists, offers young artists a chance to debut, and incorporates works into its collection. In 1994 it moved to its current location in a building designed by architect Jean Nouvel with garden landscaping by Lothar Baumgarten. The garden plays a key role in the architectural concept . Jean Nouvel calls it the "Phantom in the Park". Here is his description of the building:
"The phantom in the park.With its transparency. With its enclosure. Trees are visible behind the high glazed barrier, which has taken the place of a long opaque wall, brushing against their eight-meter high enclosure. The lone Chateaubriand Cedar rises up, framed by two screens which assert the entrance. The visitor passes beneath the cedar and sees the spectacle of the trees surrounding the glazed exhibition hall, also eight meters high, in a reading through the depth of the site. In summer the huge sliding bays disappear and the hall transforms into the extension of the park, given rhythm by high posts. The architecture is about lightness, with a refined framework of steel and glass. Architecture where the game consists in blurring the tangible boundaries of the building and rendering superfluous the reading of a solid volume amid poetics of fuzziness and effervescence. When virtuality is attacked by reality, architecture must more than ever have the courage to take on the image of contradiction." (taken from the website of Jean Nouvel Ateliers).